Southern Baptists were led by a Native American pastor to denounce forced conversions
Southern Baptists, led by a Native American pastor, have come out against forced conversions.
Mike Keahbone, who described himself as “burdened and broken” as a result of the government probe into Indian boarding schools, prepared the first resolution in support of native peoples for the religion.
Last month, Southern Baptists took a historic stand to recognize the pain Native Americans have been through and to offer their support and prayers.
Mike Keahbone said, “When you look at the long history of Southern Baptists, there was never a decision that took a stand with Native Americans.”
Keahbone is a Native American who leads a church near the Comanche Nation’s headquarters in southwest Oklahoma. He has seen firsthand how much native people need the gospel and healing.
The pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lawton suggested that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) say something about the issue after a federal report on the history of Indian boarding schools came out in May.
The resolution, which was passed at the SBC’s annual meeting in June, says that forced assimilation and conversion go against what Baptists believe about religious freedom and soul-freedom. The statement also talks about how this painful history still hurts native people today, especially after a new report.
“This opens up a pretty big wound for Native Americans, and we have to deal with it and heal it,” said Keahbone, who was on both the committee that wrote the 2022 resolutions and the SBC Executive Committee.
“Just to be able to tell everyone who was hurt by this, every Native American, every Alaskan native, and every Hawaiian native, ‘We see you, we know this is hard for you, and we’re here with you,'” he said.
In a federal report, it was found that churches helped run half of the more than 400 federally funded Indian boarding schools. The report mentions Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, but not Southern Baptist. Keahbone said that the way the church and Christian missionaries did things in the past still affects how native people think about faith and is a barrier to evangelism today.
He worked on the resolution with pastors J. T. English and Jon Nelson, who were also on the resolutions committee. He recently talked to CT about the importance of the resolution.
How did this decision get made?
As a Native American (I’m Comanche and a member of the Comanche tribe, but I’m also Kiowa and Cherokee), I was very interested to see the results of this report on boarding schools. I had heard a lot of stories about how my own family had been in boarding schools. I read the whole thing. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know how bad it would be.
My heart was obviously burdened and broken after reading it. It took me several days just to process and think about it. Once I did, a section of the report discusses how missionaries from various denominations were involved in the abuse process. There have been reports of forced conversion, in addition to forced assimilation, and it just breaks my heart.
I contacted Brent Leatherwood of the [Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission] right away, and he was already working on it, which made me so proud. That made me extremely happy. One of the things he was looking for was whether or not Southern Baptists were included in the report. That he was already ahead of the game there was a blessing to me.
Although, as far as denominations go, Southern Baptists were not mentioned in the report, I felt compelled to acknowledge them. Because of our history dealing with racial reconciliation, particularly Black and white reconciliation, I thought it would be extremely important for us as a convention. I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to stand in solidarity with Native Americans during a difficult period in our history.
This was important not only to me, but to our entire resolutions team, and they believed it would be important for our convention as well.
Is there any specific language or wording in the resolution’s text that you believe should be highlighted?
“Southern Baptists stand in support of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—particularly those who are members of our own family of churches—as they process the findings of this report and discern next steps toward healing,” says the second “Resolved.” That is enormous.
Probably equally important is the “Resolved” section, in which we condemn forced conversions and distorted missiological practices. Those two, in my opinion, are equally important.
It is historically significant for us to take a stand as a convention for these people, for my people. That was enormous. It was very meaningful to me, so it got into my feelings a little. However, I believe it is important for everyone to understand that we were not a part of the forced conversion movement.
Forced conversions are a major reason why it is so difficult to share the gospel with Native Americans. It is primarily why Native Americans refer to Christianity as “white man’s religion,” and it is not because they don’t understand that Jesus was Jewish or a Galilean—it has nothing to do with that. The experience of Native Americans with white culture, forced conversion, and forced assimilation has created a significant barrier between Native Americans and the gospel.
So it is significant for us, as one of the largest Protestant denominations, to say something like this and make it a part of our history now. When I’m sharing the gospel with Native Americans, it’s important for me to be able to say, “We were never a part of that movement; we were never a part of forced conversion.”
How does the legacy of abusive treatment at these schools by missionaries and other religious figures affect Native American views of Christianity and Christian evangelism today?
I believe it is critical for people to understand Native American history. Native Americans had been dealing with these issues for 400 years before slavery. White European settlers decimated our people even before we became a nation.
How are Native American perceptions of Christianity and Christian evangelism now impacted by the history of harsh treatment by missionaries and other religious personalities at these schools?
People should, in my opinion, be aware of Native American history. Native Americans had been coping with these problems for 400 years even before enslavement. White European settlers arrived even before we formed a nation and wiped out the majority of our population.
One of the issues I’ve been outspoken about in Baptist circles is that our convention doesn’t have a specialist for Native American ministry. Instead, we have specialists for African American ministry, Hispanic ministry, Asian ministry, and Asian ministry.
I believe we did an excellent job of including representatives from every nation, tribe, and tongue at some point during the 2021 convention, whether to pray, speak, or preach. However, Native Americans were the only group that was entirely absent from that conference. That being the case, it begs the question, “Why?” Furthermore, it’s not a racial issue and it’s not purposeful. Just because people are unaware of the background history, Native Americans aren’t often recognized.
When I bring this up in some rather frank and private talks, the response I occasionally receive is “The Native American population is so small. You have a sizable population of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, as you are aware. “How do you suppose that population became so small,” is always my reaction. Here is the motherland for us; this is where we came from; this was our homeland. Furthermore, the fact that we have one of the lowest populations in this nation indicates a serious issue that has never really been addressed.
I’m not requesting restitution, and I’m not requesting favors. I merely want us to have equal access to and representation in the various ministries.
What historical information regarding Native Americans and these boarding schools ought Christians to be aware of today?
It can help you gain some perspective on the type of trauma that we live with if you look at Native American history and what has happened to Native Americans throughout the years. I believe it would be quite beneficial if people would simply educate themselves, put in a little effort, and consider what Native Americans have gone through.
The main reason the government wanted it to be simpler to acquire Native American lands was mentioned in the study as to why we were even dealing with forced assimilation. In order to accomplish this, they had to first drive them and forcibly remove them from their homes before turning their attention to the youth. They sought to restrict their education and abilities.
Future generations of a population are more forced into the workforce if only a restricted education is provided to them. They aren’t promoted to positions where they can make a difference, grasp what is happening to them, and take action, therefore they don’t become leaders. The motivation behind it, its strategic movements, and its ugliness are all very terrible aspects of our history.
Because of everything we’ve been through, I’m not trying to invoke racial stereotypes or search for a handout. In my heart, I wish to succeed in learning how to live inside this framework and manner of operation. And I want to assist other indigenous people in doing the same, so they may achieve success, hold positions of power, and speak up where we can. Even in the beginning of this resolution, I believe you can see a little bit of a culmination in it.
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